May 16, 2004

The gay marriage amendment predictably fizzles.

Back in February, there was a lot of talk about amending the Constitution to stave off gay marriage. At the time, I wrote that there was no way the Constitution was going to be amended for this purpose and got into a few heated discussions with people who disagreed. My assertion was based on the extreme difficulty of amending the Constitution coupled with a belief that ordinary Americans will not like the idea of taking action against a group that has historically suffered discrimination. Here's what I said then:
[E]ven though the amendment is designed to deprive gay rights proponents of something they seek, the amendment effort provides them with new opportunities to portray the opposition in a negative light. I think Americans who have not taken sides or who may feel a bit shocked by what is happening in San Francisco will balk at the idea of an exclusionary amendment in the Constitution. The all-powerful moderate Americans will be affected by the argument that it's wrong to actively exclude the underdog and it's wrong to put something negative in the Constitution.

Today's NYT has a front-page article detailing the "tepid response" to the amendment among the very churchgoers who were supposedly going to "revolt" against President Bush if he didn't back the amendment. At the time, Bush made a brief statement backing the amendment but distancing himself from the bitter, angry tone of its proponents and asking people to show "kindness and good will and decency." Although people who didn't like Bush in the first place took the opportunity to denounce him—Rosie O'Donnell called his comments "vile and vicious and hateful"—I thought at the time that he was not interested in making this his cause. He has some feeling for conservative Christians, but he did not show any interest in expressing hostility toward a discriminated-against group. In that, he really had more in common with most conservative Christians than did the church leaders who pushed for the amendment. Those church leaders, according to today's Times article are "surprised and disappointed" by their parishioners' lack of interest in fighting off gay marriage. The church leaders now "concede that [the amendment] appears all but dead in Congress for this election year."

I hope people who believed gay marriage would work as a powerful wedge issue in the campaign will now acknowledge how wrong they were and take back any statements about how eager conservative Christians were to oppress gay people.
[O]pponents of gay marriage say they are puzzling over why such a volatile cultural issue is not spurring more rank-and-file conservative Christians to rise up in support of the amendment. They are especially frustrated, they say, because opinion polls show that a large majority of voters oppose gay marriage….

Some conservatives warn that the Christian leaders rallying behind the amendment may now face a loss of credibility. Their influence with evangelical believers is a subject of keen interest in Washington, in part because the Bush campaign has made ensuring their turnout at the polls a top priority. …

Gay rights groups argue that social conservatives in Washington overestimated the level of anxiety about gay marriage among their supporters. "Other issues are far more important to most Americans, including evangelicals — issues like the economy, jobs, health care, the war in Iraq," said Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

It's more than just that Americans are distracted by other issues. Gay marriage is actually the kind of issue that people would engage with if they really cared. Foreman is just bringing up the laundry list of issues Democrats want to talk about. I'd like to see people like Foreman acknowledge that ordinary Americans, including evangelicals and social conservatives, do not like the idea of excluding or discriminating against gay people. They may resist doing positive things, but they aren't interested in taking negative actions.

The Times article continues:
The amendment's backers contend that the reason people are not responding more vocally is that many grass-roots conservatives do not yet understand how same-sex marriages affect them personally.

Yeah, well, and they never will. People are showing their essential decency as they fail to "understand" it. They instinctively reject it. If they spent more time intellectually engaging with the complexities of the argument—which they won't, of course—they still wouldn't "understand" it, because it is simply not coherent or compelling enough to win over people who begin with the intuitive sense that it isn't very decent or fair to amend the Constitution to exclude gay people from marriage.
"The thing that we keep focusing on is, there is no place that people have voted for same-sex marriage," said Gary Bauer, a social conservative who unsuccessfully sought the Republican presidential nomination in 2000.

This should not be a source of puzzlement for the amendment's supporters. Ordinary people don't want to do something positive, but they still won't do anything negative. It is a mistake in understanding human nature to think that not taking positive action reveals an interest in taking a negative action. It's not just that inertia is a powerful force; it is that most Americans take a tolerant, live-and-let-live attitude. They might not want to help the needy and oppressed all that much, but you can't get them excited about hurting them.


Anonymous said...

One of my Constitutional Law profs said he thought the amendment would be successful. I was astonished because on a basic level, it just doesn't seem to be something thoughtful people would do in post civil rights times. On another level, when has the constitution been amended to deny rights to a group of people? I asked him that and he said, "We don't let a woman marry her son, we don't let siblings marry. That's established family law. It's odd, weird, against public policy."

Ann Althouse said...

Even assuming the great majority of people do think gay marriage is weird, have we ever amended the Constitution to prevent states from adopting an odd new policy? There have been a few times when we've amended the Constitution to impose a new social policy and deprive the states of their preference for a traditional policy, but it's never been the other way around. And the Constitution has never been about family law, which is traditionally left to the states.